Performances against England saw Bundee Aki and Jack Conan become Lions
With one Test start since 2019, Jack Conan did enough to impress the Lions coaches.
Of all the players in the conversation for the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa, Jack Conan and Bundee Aki were lesser spotted birds.
As it turns out, their performances in Ireland's 32-18 win over England, in March, may have secured their plane tickets to South Africa.
Conan had featured as a sub for Ireland in the Six Nations, this year, but only made it into Ireland's starring XV when a training ground knee injury to Will Connors saw him drafted in. He rewarded Andy Farrell with a superbly physical outing against England, which featured a canny snipe to finish off a flowing team move.
Aki had been on the outside, looking in, for much of the Six Nations, but he was another to show he was still able to mix it at Test level against the English. He was having a fine day of it until he was red-carded for a crunching, high tackle on Billy Vunipola.
As Aki headed off the pitch - the second sending off in his Test career - he must have worried if that was Ireland Test chances damaged. As it has now transpired, his next Test match outing could be in the red jersey of the Lions against South Africa.
Lions team manager Jason Leonard had the honour of naming the 37 players that would make the squad. He started off with the backs, and his very first name called out was a portent of what was to come.
"Bundee Aki, of Connacht and Ireland."
Given that Jonathan Davies, Garry Ringrose, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi all missed out on centre selections, hearing Aki's name called out was a surprise to most of us.
Didnae see Bundee Aki coming either!
— Scottish Rugby Blog 🏴 (@ScotRugbyBlog) May 6, 2021
Strong squad for the #Lions2021 is Bundee Aki good on the social? Can’t see another reason why he is there.
— Jack Hughes (@jack94716709) May 6, 2021
Bundee Aki 🤨
— Will Parrott (@willparrott) May 6, 2021
Named along with Chris Harris, it was a sure sign that the Lions are going for a physical presence in their midfield. Right now, it looks as though Owen Farrell and Robbie Henshaw will wear 12 and 13 against the Springboks, but don't rule out Aki of playing the inside centre role that Ben Te'o did against the All Blacks in 2017.
As for Conan, he was behind Caelan Doris, Will Connors and even Josh van der Flier at certain stages - for province and country - in the past 18 months, but he is in a purple patch right now and his timing could not have been better.
Ahead of Leinster's Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle, Conan spoke with us about the possibility of making a Lions tour. He commented:
"At the end of the day it’d be fantastic to go but I am not holding my breath. It is not something I am losing too much sleep over."
He perhaps was not losing sleep as he felt he was such an outsider, but Warren Gatland and his coaching team had their interests piqued by his outing against England. Tracking him, in Leinster blue, they became convinced that they had a mobile back-row and was not just a carry into contact forward.
Conan and Aki both face stiff competition to make it into the Test XV, but we would put nothing past them at this stage.
Two surprise, but welcome selections. They will be itching to show Lions fans what they are made of.